AIDS. Rwanda. 9/11. Tsunami. Hurricane Katrina.

One of the first question people ask in the face of tragedies like this is “why?” And it is a perfectly reasonable question to ask: how could a good God allow such evil things to happen? Even if you make the distinction between evil that people do to each other, such as 9/11 or the daily barrage of violence documented on the evening news, and the evil caused by nature, the question still lingers in want of answers. In fact, the question gains a more terrible weight in light of the fact that the laws of nature is so out of the control of humans, and the “evil” of nature can only be set at God’s doorstep.

Listening to NPR this morning, I was glad to hear reports of how churches have stepped up and been a source of relief and comfort. Churches, especially given how long it takes the government to organize assistance, are one of the first places people turn to for shelter as well as answers in times like these. Churches were rarely so packed as they were in the weeks after 9/11. In a lot of ways, I don’t think the Church was ready for it, had any answers, or didn’t offer up anything people wanted to hear. You can talk to me about this televangelist or that radio preacher or that wacko group speaking in the name of all right thinking Christians, but unless I’m directed to the latest bit of lunacy people expect me to comment on, I don’t subject myself to them.

Some of our more conservative Evangelical brethren would chalk such natural disasters up to this simply being a consequence of living in a “fallen world” (that because of Adam’s sin, nothing about God’s created order is as it should be. The violence and evil we experience is the result of our alienation from God and the alienation from creation itself). If you find comfort in the cool arms of some systematic theology, then more power to you, but some people want to hold God to account for allowing things to unfold as they have. Others of our “beloved spokesmen” (who shall go nameless because I fear many of their comments are meant solely to generate headlines for themselves rather than actually help anyone) are quick to proclaim:
-God is trying to get our attention.
-God is judging us (for our rampant homosexuality and abortions).
-We brought this on ourselves.
-The hand that smites is the hand that heals.
-The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.

Does that mean that the drunk driver who kills a family of four was doing God’s will? By their reasoning, God is behind all of the evil and suffering in the world. “Hey, you killed a couple hundred thousand people to get my attention. Sign me up.” With that as the take home lesson, obviously people are going to turn to Him now. This brand of theology torments me. If their view of God is correct, then I would have to end up praying “God, obviously we’re stupid. We don’t get it, we won’t get it. So You might want to ease up because now it’s just abuse.”

Or maybe we need some new spokesmen.

Part of the problem is that we have to have answers to everything. That much is understandable, however one of the consequence has been that we treat the Bible like an answer book, turning to it for absolute certainty and truth. In turn, this gave rise to formulas and cliches that we need to work past. In the Bible, we have wisdom writings, stories, revelations, and an account of human suffering and divine redemption. So our wrestlings boil down to two things:

I. The God is Good Theodicy. Okay, a theodicy is a justification of God. It was a philosophical term first coined by the German thinker, Gottfied Wilhelm von Leibnitz, but the idea is an old one as we try to reconcile the idea of a good, all powerful God and the reality of evil. The fact of the matter is that God is good and is also omnipotent. God created a world which contains evil and had a good reason for doing so (for reasons of greater good that we don’t understand right now). So the fact that the world contains evil is consistent with a Christian view of God. Yet we still want this all knowing, all powerful God to do something about the evil. We want to accuse God, point out how He has screwed up and turned His back on us for too long. We’re tired of His seeming silence and indifference to our sufferings.

II. God is sovereign. Cliches such as “there is a divine blueprint from above” or “there’s a reason for everything” sound good. Look, there’s a couple of ways to look at sovereignty. God as the ultimate engineer, controls the world like a mechanism. There’s no free will, only God pushing us around like chess pieces. Another view, getting around that prickly “no free will” problem, says that God allows all choices, using his foreknowledge to move things toward his greater purpose/good. Either way, God does not explain Himself. Evil is neither explained nor denied.

All I’m left with is God is God, I’m not, so I’ll be quiet now.

For the sake of my own mental noodling, I believe that we often project onto God our understanding of all the attributes we think He should have. If we’re going to do that, we need to project it out a bit. One thing I have come to realize during my time as a parent is that sometimes I look evil to my kids. They don’t have my experience nor my (bigger picture) view of how I want them shaped to be the men they ought to be. That’s just the leap from child to parent, so I can’t imagine the differences in perspective from human to God. I remember the “answers”God offered to Job when Job wanted God to account for Himself for how unjustly Job had been allowed to suffer [Job 40:8-14 (as rendered in The Message)]:

“Do you presume to tell me what I’m doing wrong? Are you calling me a sinner so you can be a saint? Do you have an arm like my arm? Can you shout in thunder the way I can? Go ahead, show your stuff. Let’s see what you’re made of, what you can do. Unleash your outrage. Target the arrogant and lay them flat. Target the arrogant and bring them to their knees. Stop the wicked in their tracks–make mincemeat of them! Dig a mass grave and dump them in it–faceless corpses in an unmarked grave. I’ll gladly step aside and hand things over to you–you can surely save yourself with no help from me!”

So most times, my best theological answer to many questions is “I don’t know,” but the questions are worth struggling with and working through. Honestly, what answer would satisfy you? That is why I question the value of such exercises a lot of the time and choose to tread the road of mystery. Some things can’t be taught, they have to be lived. No amount speculation will comfort those truly suffering (nor will the most rational or well framed argument win an “unbeliever”). Some questions have no answers, at least not here and not now.

So I could sit here, stuck in a tortured rut of intellectual navel gazing, or I could view the victims of tragedy the way the good Samaritan viewed the man who was left beaten and beside the road. He took him in and showed compassion for him. He lived out Christ’s message of loving your neighbor as yourself. Tragedies aren’t the victims’ problems or that region or country’s problem, but all of our problems.

I can’t help but be struck by the fact that while disasters like this are horrific, and sometimes bring out the worst in some of us, they also cause us to pull together in ways few other things can. They cause us to shake ourselves and take stock of our “problems” by forcing us to step outside of our daily complaints. Tragedies bring out our generosity as we reevaluate what is truly important, how much many of us have, and how good we really have things. Think of how stunned person after person was by the compassion of strangers.

span style=”color: rgb(255, 0, 0);”>Religion does not have a monopoly on morality, but it does offer a different perspective on problems and solutions. If godlessness is the problem, then worship is the solution. If immorality is the problem, then godliness is the solution. Christians are to be a witness for hope (in the form of Jesus Christ) and the first ones to protest this violent order of the way things are. We have hope, and in light of that hope, we act. We draw near to the suffering, continue to ask “why?”, and then act in compassion. That is our response to how could God allow this: be the arms of God in comforting the victims of suffering.